There are two syringes sitting on top of a hard plastic box containing Kitten A and Kitten B.
The five-week-old adorable balls of fur — grey and black — weren’t given names by staff at the Winnipeg Humane Society because they arrived with respiratory infections.
In other words, they were dead kittens walking.
The syringes are filled with one millilitre each of pentobarbital, an anesthetic overdose. The room is small and sterile. Next door, there is a walk-in freezer with a large wooden crate filled with the unlucky ones stuffed in plastic garbage bags. Once a week, the carcasses are picked up for cremation.
Dr. Erika Anseeuw, the society’s director of animal health, has set out yet another black plastic bag. As she goes about her business — which is the impossible task of managing the never-ending cat overpopulation in Winnipeg — Anseeuw speaks in measured, often clinical terminology.
Think: Lilith Sternin of Cheers as a veterinarian.
Then the discussion turns personal. Anseeuw notes sometimes the technicians and vets who are tasked with the unenviable job of putting down 10 cats a day (Kitten A and B are No. 9 and No. 10 on a recent Thursday), will hear offhanded comments from other society staff saying things such as, "How could you do that to poor Tigger?"
"So what do you think they say about you?" a reporter asked, expecting a reserved, matter-of-fact response.
Anseeuw’s eyes begin to well up, and start leaking. The professional, clinical exterior is gone.
"I know they probably say things about me, too," Anseeuw says, finally.
"I’m sorry. I know I shouldn’t care, but... somebody has to do it. I’ve had days where I’ve cried when I thought this was too much. It catches up with you sometimes."
How could it not? But Anseeuw composes herself quickly. A few minutes later, she lifts the clear plastic lid to the crate that contains Kitten A and Kitten B, the tiny siblings, with a thud.
"So," she asked, "do you still want to see this?"
50K - 100K cats on Winnipeg streets
Roxanne Keeley saw what she believed to be a homeless man walking down Main Street with a kitten slung over his shoulder, hanging at the end of a rope.
The cat was black, but for some unexplained reason was painted yellow.
Keeley pulled over her car, got out and walked up to the man.
"I’ll give you $10 for that kitten," she said, to the stranger.
The man obliged and took the 10 bucks. Keeley took the cat.
"I just had to," she recalled.
"Nothing good was going to come of that. I just can’t walk by."
Keeley took the kitten to a local rescue, D’Arcy’s Animal Rescue Centre. The rope around the animal’s neck was so tight, it had to be gently sliced off.
Every day, people like Roxanne Keeley find a cat in some sort of distress. Every day, these cats, if they’re lucky, end up in no-kill rescue shelters or manage to ingratiate themselves into an adoptive home.
But the vast majority just die; on the streets or euthanized at the humane society or veterinary clinics — by the thousands.
Recently, the Free Press reported 2,450 Winnipeggers have reported dead cats on public property via the 311 hotline since 2010, most in the core area.
And so far this year, Winnipeg has received 652 reports of dead cats on public property.
Not surprisingly, such news stories generate, at least among animal-loving constituents, a natural reaction of dismay and even surprise.
Yet those numbers don’t even scratch the surface.
Consider: It’s estimated between 50,000 and 100,000 cats (not spayed or neutered) roam the city at any given time, including the homeless, cared-for cats on the prowl and feral colonies. Given the prolific rate at which felines can reproduce — multiple litters on average of four kittens per year — the result is an annual birth of anywhere between 150,000 to 300,000 kittens within city limits.
According to one study published by the American Veterinary Medical Association in 2004, three-quarters of those kittens die or disappear within six months. They starve, succumb to the elements, get eaten by predators or die due to any number of diseases. Or they end up as roadkill. And that percentage could even be higher in a city with an extended, harsh winter climate.
Given these numbers, it’s no wonder mandatory cat licensing — which could trigger robust public caterwauling — is one of the 30 recommendations being seriously considered to make Winnipeg "more progressively responsible in pet ownership," according to the city’s animal services executive director Leland Gordon. Those recommendations, still in the making, are to be presented to the city’s community service committee in October.
Meanwhile, no-kill shelters and rescues are filled practically the minute they open, each with waiting lists and cats stationed at foster homes. As a result, the Winnipeg Humane Society, also filled to capacity, is left to euthanize 2,000 to 2,500 cats a year.
The net result is that perfectly healthy cats are put down as a matter of course.
'Cats are considered disposable'
Not surprisingly, perhaps, those who run no-kill shelters are quick to paint the WHS as a feline death camp, funded $500,000 a year by the city. Conversely, humane society CEO Bill MacDonald has in the past characterized no-kill shelters as "warehouses," arguing the WHS provides better care due to its euthanasia policy.
As MacDonald bluntly noted to the Free Press: "If the city wasn’t funding the humane society to do this work, you wouldn’t be able to drive to work without seeing a dead cat on the street."
The city’s cat conundrum — some animal advocates call it a crisis — is largely in the shadows. Homeless cats roam mostly at night. Feral colonies are virtually invisible, especially if you’re not looking.
"There’s still a notion that cats aren’t valuable," said Lynne Scott, who runs Craig Street Cats, a rescue for stray felines. "Some people don’t like them and don’t want them anywhere. Cats are considered disposable."
"I don’t know why people don’t care," added Maureen McCurry, a longtime volunteer at Quagga Stray Cat Rescue. "I guess people don’t see the problem so they don’t care if they die by the thousands at the humane society."
Asked how she would describe the cat overpopulation problem in Winnipeg, McCurry replied: "Out of control. Heartbreaking is another word that comes to mind. We hear about animal cruelty all the time, especially with cats. They’re considered more disposable, and they’re so prolific. Something has to happen."
Of course, it still makes headlines when cats die a gruesome death at the hands of mankind.
On July 20, it was newsworthy when a three-month-old kitten was killed with a baseball bat in a fight between three women that escalated in Winnipeg’s North End. A 23-year-old woman is facing charges in connection with the incident. The kitten was euthanized because of the severity of its injuries.
But then it hasn’t been a good month for cats in the news.
In mid-July, in Colorado City, Ariz., a kitten was found half-buried in cement. Alive. The man who found the cat somehow extricated the matted animal from the cement, but it died a couple of days later.
On July 12, a 25-year-old Tampa-area woman was found guilty of bludgeoning a kitten with a baseball bat and encouraging her eight-year-old son to torture another cat. The kitten had to be put down, and the cat was found dead at the bottom of a trash can.
A few days later, in Brooklyn, a man and his son were charged with animal cruelty after prosecutors accused them of beating a black cat to death with a stick.
On July 19, a seven-year-old orange cat named Tommy was shot between the eyes with an arrow not far from his home in Lackawanna, N.Y. Tommy was euthanized.
Meanwhile, in Houston, police are on the lookout for a serial cat killer who has been hacking neighbourhood pets in half with a knife and leaving them in plain sight for owners to find.
No wonder cats are said to have nine lives. They need them.
But while opinions about cats may vary, including their value to society as a whole, few people in the field of saving strays and feral colonies, or administrators charged with attempting to limit population growth, deny that the number of homeless cats continues to rise virtually unabated, other than by natural causes and bitter winters.
"It’s an overwhelming issue that will eventually come to a head and will explode," warned D’arcy Johnston, CEO of D’arcy’s Animal Rescue Centre. "We’re handling what we can, but the problem is bigger than us. We can’t keep up. As far as I’m concerned, it’s critical.
"At this point I’m getting kind of frustrated because we’ve been doing this for 11 years and the numbers keep going up. Each year, I bang my head against the wall, saying, ‘Here we go again.’ And nothing seems to be done about it except talk."
Not a cat problem; a human problem
Here’s the undisputed irony: It’s not a cat problem, according to any animal advocate. It’s a human problem that causes undue suffering to the neglected or abandoned animals who perish every day as a consequence.
Or end up painted yellow and slung over the shoulder of a guy on Main Street.
And to think, given Keeley’s random intervention, that kitten was one of the fortunate ones.
"It’s enough to make you cry," offered Carla Martinelli-Irvine, founder and executive director of Winnipeg Pet Rescue, the first no-kill shelter established in Winnipeg. "The sad part is it happens so many times that you don’t cry anymore.
"I’ve been doing this for 22 years, and I’ve seen so much neglect and so much abuse... it’s sad that it’s not shocking. We get animals thrown in our BFI bin. We get animals left outside our door in 40-below weather or 30-above weather. There’s still people who continue to commit these acts of violence against animals. We’re just seeing so much of it. You shake your head and go home at night, and you just pray for a better world the next day."
Ultimately, it could be argued the most instrumental cause of cat cruelty is benign: the failure or financial inability of too many owners to simply spay or neuter their pets.
Interestingly, it was Bob Barker, the longtime host of the game show The Price Is Right, who ended each broadcast with the kindly plea: "Help control the pet population. Have your pets spayed or neutered."
So why don’t more cat owners follow Barker’s advice? Because for too many of them, the price is wrong. It can cost upwards of $250 to have a female cat spayed at a veterinary clinic — a price tag far out of reach for low-income families. It’s no coincidence, after all, that the city region most overrun with homeless cats is the North End. Those same cats can spread, by foot or by simply reproducing, throughout the city.
In 2008, the Winnipeg Humane Society, in conjunction with the city’s animal services department, established the Spay and Neuter Inner-city Pet Program (SNIPP) in an effort to stem the feline tide. The program subsidizes the cost of spaying or neutering (about $25 for the owner), and volunteers pick up the cats and return them to the owner the next day.
"It’s scary how fast they (the cats) can get pregnant," offered Nancy Rutherford, a volunteer driver for SNIPP. "They’re in the garbage, they’re crossing the streets. They’re everywhere. It’s frightening. And they all deserve a better life than they get."
But while the core area might be the city’s most high-traffic breeding ground, it’s by no means ground zero. Just set a bowl of Friskies on your back stoop anywhere in the city (which is illegal under city bylaws, by the way) and see how long it takes for a skittish tabby to suddenly appear. Then another.
Wolf at the door
Lynne Scott rescued her first stray cat in August of 2007. She named her Tia. Scott then began scouring her Wolseley neighbourhood, another of the city’s more free-range-friendly haunts, and counted 40 strays.
In the first summer, Scott took in 35 kittens she put up for adoption through a pet store at the end of her block. Within months, she had more than 50 cats under her roof and eventually founded Craig Street Cats, which at the time was the only city-approved rescue shelter operating out of a residence (with the neighbour’s signed approval.)
"I finally realized if anybody was going to do anything (about the problem,) it would have to be me," the retired school teacher explained.
Scott soon discovered the cat-rescue business, go figure, isn’t exactly a vehicle for riches. Quite the opposite — she estimates that she’s poured about $100,000 into the rescue.
"I’ve pretty much gone through any savings I had, my credit and the equity on my house," she said.
As of early this year, Scott had upwards of 100 cats boarding in her two-storey home. It was enough to give her pause.
"There comes a point," she said, "where you realize it’s far too much to handle in your home. It’s not your home. The bathroom and my bedroom were the only place without cats. The goal was never to end up with 100 cats. The goal was to take cats off the street and stop them from reproducing."
This June, however, Scott opened the Craig Street Cats adoption centre on Madison Street. It was immediately filled to capacity with 100-plus strays.
Said Scott: "I’m looking forward to having my house back." (For the record, Tia, will stay behind.)
Like any grassroots pet rescue/shelter in the city, Scott relies heavily on individual donations, corporate sponsorships and fundraisers, including the rescue’s annual Spay-ghetti Dinner. Most of these adoption centres — including Winnipeg Pet Rescue, D’Arcy’s and Quagga — are in a constant financial struggle to keep the doors open.
"We kind of fly by the seat of our pants here," Martinelli-Irvine of Winnipeg Pet Rescue said. "You keep the wolf away from the door. You’re always relying on the kindness of people."
Each of the rescues also has working relationships with various veterinary clinics that offer cut-rate prices across the board. Still, Winnipeg Pet Rescue’s annual budget runs between $650,000 and $750,000. D’Arcy’s operates on about $500,000 a year, with about half the revenue generated by the centre’s pet supply store located on Century Street.
Either way, that’s a lot of Purina.
Yet, most rescues begin modestly. D’Arcy Johnston used to work at a veterinary clinic office before deciding "too many healthy animals were being euthanized, so I started taking them home."
The last straw, said Johnson, was when a couple pulled up in a motorhome and requested that the clinic put down their two poodles because they didn’t fit into their vacation plans.
Said Johnston: "I didn’t feel guilty for not being nice to them."
Martinelli-Irvine’s former occupation was prison guard at the Winnipeg Remand Centre. "I decided I wanted to get into a good segment of society," she said, "and that was my love for animals."
To be sure, all the animal advocates interviewed for this story understand their shared passion might seem insignificant in a city where young women vanish in the core area and end up dead. And homeless human beings, much less cats, are a commonplace sight.
After all, the very reason those shelters/adoption centres exist in the first place is a general malaise toward the issue to which they dedicate so much time, money and energy.
"They say the same thing about women who go missing on Main Street. ‘Who cares?’ " Quagga’s McCurry reasoned. "You know what they say about a society being judged by how it takes care of the poorest. It’s about what you can do from your own experience in your own small realm."
Calgary's solution: not easy or cheap
But is Winnipeg’s cat-overpopulation problem simply a lost cause tempered only by a handful of animal lovers, deadly winters and forced euthanasia?
Maybe not. In Calgary, where the city has established a groundbreaking program to control the stray and homeless feline population, more than half of the city’s 90,000-plus cats are licensed.
Under an ordinance implemented in 2006, licences for unaltered cats are $30 versus $10 for those spayed or neutered. The fine for having an unlicensed animal is $250 (cat or dog), and the fine for an animal not wearing its licence is $75.
The licences alone generate about 85 per cent of the $5-million annual budget for Calgary’s Animal and Bylaw Services, which in turn dedicates funds for a trap, neuter and release program.
Animal-control officers carry laptops and GPS devices, and if an animal they pick up in the field has a licence, it can be returned home and never go to the shelter. As a result, in 2010, the return rate for cats was 52 per cent. In Winnipeg, the return rate for cats that end up at the humane society runs around nine per cent, even though shelter officials estimate 80 to 90 per cent have owners.
"We knew one of the things we had to do was get identification of cats," offered Bill Bruce, the director of Calgary’s ABS program. "But it was also about a cultural shift in getting people to, I guess, value cats the same way they value dogs. No dog owner would open their door at 11 o’clock at night and boot their dog into the street. Cat owners are doing it all the time.
"So we had to get cat owners’ heads around the risk to their cat when it roams at large. It’s very dangerous. But it also creates breeding opportunities."
It wasn’t easy, or cheap. In Calgary, the city provided $1.5 million in startup costs for the program, which is now self-sustained by incoming revenue that in turn provides subsidies to low-income families and middle-income families for spaying and neutering.
Meanwhile, the ABS has instituted education and awareness programs designed to counter certain myths about cat ownership.
"There’s a lot of myths," Bruce said. "A lot of people believe for their cat to be happy, it needs to roam and to hunt. Not true. Most cats are terrified and hiding somewhere. Then you look at the number of cats hit by cars, or how many get treated by vets because of a lesion or infection from a fight with another cat, how many cats are killed by wildlife."
"I mean, the images are burned in our minds. You walk around any neighbourhood in Winnipeg, just like you used to do in Calgary, and every street light post has a picture of Fluffy missing with a strip of phone numbers."
Generally, Bruce added, outdoor cats live three to five years. Indoor cats live on average 15 years or more.
Open spaces in Calgary shelters
Has the Calgary model worked? Late last month, at the peak of the kitten season, the city’s animal services shelter was holding 60 cats. There were 25 open spaces.
"We’re not at capacity," Bruce said. "We used to be overwhelmed. For both us and the Calgary Humane Society, we haven’t euthanized cats for space for a long time. I haven’t euthanized a cat for space since 2005. For the humane society, it’s been three or four years. We will not euthanize a healthy animal."
In addition, about five years ago, the number of dead cats hit by cars on Calgary streets was about 2,000 a year. That number has shrunk to around 250.
So why is the Calgary model not the norm?
"Many cites get caught up in the chicken-and-egg syndrome," Bruce said. "You could do it if you had the resources, but we don’t have the resources. I look at it as an investment with the goal it will become a self-sustaining business."
One key, said Bruce, is to make licensing incentive-based. In Calgary, a pet licence can get you discounts at 65 local businesses with a rewards card that includes 10 per cent off an oil change or discounts on a hotel room in Banff.
Another critical component is to funnel the revenue from the licensing directly into the program, not to general city coffers.
"When they (owners) know every penny is going back into the animals, not fixing potholes or whatever, they’re far more willing to invest. For every licence, you probably save the lives of two more cats in your community."
If there is such a thing, when it comes to the world of managing urban cat populations, Bruce is a bit of a rock star. He’s been invited to cities from New York to San Jose to discuss the Calgary model with municipal leaders. He’s even been to Winnipeg, which he believes is currently caught in the "chicken-and-egg loop."
But he cautions that it’s not a cookie-cutter program and must be tailored to individual cities. Moreover, there has to be a will to address the problem before any solutions can occur.
"It was a progressive thing," he said. "It didn’t happen overnight (in Calgary). You have to understand that most municipalities live in a three-year window, from election to election. This is a tremendous amount of work to do that pays huge dividends, but it has to be supported by the public.
"When we did cat licensing, we got all the people who manage cats together in a room, and we learned how to play together nicely. The first thing we had to do was be honest with one another. We asked, ‘How many cats are really in your shelter?’ We came up with a number that there were 9,000 cats in shelters in Calgary. Only 17 per cent had ID. And you can guess what happened to a lot of them. They were euthanized. So we had to ask the public, ‘Is that OK with you?’ "
'We have a cat problem'
Ultimately, however, the first step is a simple admission.
"We have a cat problem," offered Dr. Lynn Webster, a member of Winnipeg’s animal advisory committee and past president of the Manitoba Veterinarian Medical Association. "North America has a cat problem. It’s somewhat disgusting that we aren’t managing the problem better than we are. People say, ‘It can’t be done.’ I take exception to that."
Just look to Calgary, Webster said.
"Either we know something they don’t, or we’re out of step. I would suggest it’s the latter," he argued. "The blueprint is right there. It’s absolutely phenomenal. All it takes is for some councilors and bureaucrats to get off their collective you-know-whats and do something. It’s not rocket science."
Winnipeg animal services executive director Leland Gordon is well aware of the Calgary model, but notes that Winnipeg has differing demographics — for example, the core area — that create more challenges in terms of licensing.
For instance, Gordon noted the number of dog licences issued in Winnipeg has increased significantly in the last three years — up to 60,000 from 35,000 in 2009 — for a population estimated at 100,000.
No licensing is required for cats, although city bylaws state: "Every owner of a cat shall ensure that it is identified by a tattoo number, microchip or collar which will easily allow the owner’s name, address and telephone number to be ascertained."
Could cat licensing work in Winnipeg when it hasn’t before? After all, how do you identify pet owners without going door to door, as they did in Calgary?
Well, how about neighbours ratting out the cats?
In the last year alone, the 311 calls to animal services more than doubled to 12,000 from about 5,000. Reasoned Gordon: "If cat licensing would come into place, people would call 311 (to report unlicensed outdoor cats). It’s as simple as that."
Perhaps, but clearly when it comes to dealing with cat overpopulation — and the inherent suffering associated with the problem — it seems even confronting and addressing the most obvious solutions is never simple.
"If somebody chooses to get a pet, they should be able to care for every aspect of that cat for the rest of their life. We need more people in Winnipeg to listen to that (Bob Barker’s) message: ‘Don’t be part of the problem.’
"All this stuff boils down to people and how they take care of their animals.
"Why in this city do we have so many large animal agencies and numerous rescue groups? Why? Nothing surprises me anymore. We have people throwing dogs out car windows. People hitting cats with baseball bats. We have to value animals more."
'It's not normal for us to have to do this'
Back at the tiny, sterile room in the bowels of the humane society, the question Anseeuw asked — "Do you still want to see this?" — hangs in the air.
The naive intent was to document the end result, literally, of the systemic issue of society’s failure or disinterest in controlling or managing cat overpopulation in urban areas.
But that exercise, in terms of a journalistic exercise, seems unnecessary now. The point has been taken.
"No," the reporter meekly replies. "I think I’ve seen enough."
Anseeuw doesn’t seem surprised.
"It’s not normal for us to have to do this," she said. "And it’s not normal for people to want to watch it happen."
Leaving Kitten A and Kitten B behind, there is the inescapable conclusion — from veterinarians to shelter operators to volunteers to animal-control officers — those left with the dirty work care the most. Yet, they are sometimes perceived to care the least.
"It’s like when I’m on a plane," Anseeuw explained. "I’m one of those people that likes to sit by the emergency exit because I know I can handle it. I know what has to be done. And I see what happens when people are in charge who can’t do it and the (cat) population goes up and the animal welfare goes down.
"I know my responsibility is not just to two kittens, no matter how adorable they are, but to the population in general. We have to decide, ‘That’s it.’ We only have so much staff. We can only take on so many cases. So some days when it gets really bad, we have to say, ‘That room (of strays) is going. We need that room.’ "
Cold. Clinical. Very matter-of-fact.
Yet, words spoken by a veterinarian with moist eyes, if only for a moment, and two more unwanted kittens to put in a plastic bag.